Miami runs into a Hurricane, falls to Marquette in Sweet 16

Seven years ago, Jim Larranaga led George Mason to college basketball’s promised land, an unthinkable run whose path ran through Verizon Center.

This time, it’s where the ride ended. Miami, the East Region’s No. 2 seed, simply looked disorganized, lost and panicked Thursday night.

And third-seeded Marquette — a team that had stumbled its way this far in the NCAA tournament — took advantage for a 71-61 victory in the East Region semifinals.

“I think we all knew we just didn’t have it tonight,” Larranaga said. “We didn’t have the juice that you need to play great basketball. “

The Golden Eagles will play the Syracuse-Indiana winner on Saturday in the Elite Eight.

On Wednesday, Larranaga and the Hurricanes’ players talked about how losing an important player couldn’t alter the team’s approach.

Reggie Johnson, Miami’s best post player, didn’t travel to Washington after suffering what the school called a “lower-extremity injury” earlier this week.

The key, the Hurricanes said, was not allowing Johnson’s absence to cripple their chances by throwing the team off-balance.

Throughout Thursday’s contest, that seemed to be precisely the Hurricanes’ problem. In the first half, they missed 10 of 11 attempts from three-point range and 23 of their field goal attempts altogether.

Five turnovers and overall sloppy play didn’t help, and Marquette showed no sympathy.

The Golden Eagles had, before this convincing victory, established themselves only as one of the tournament’s most inconsistent teams.

They moved on with an improbable first-round comeback against Davidson and then survived a second-round scare against Butler.

Marquette advanced but seemed beatable, especially for such a high seed. It couldn’t consistently make long-range baskets. It couldn’t keep up with a bigger, more versatile team like Miami. It had been tested too often — and maybe even exposed.

None of these accusations seemed out of line before Thursday’s tip-off, but once the ball went up, they each faded.

The Golden Eagles didn’t need to try high-risk shots, because Miami couldn’t defend shots near the basket.

Hurricanes guard Durand Scott was the ACC’s defensive player of the year, and even he couldn’t get in Marquette’s way. He contributed his own mistakes, being whistled for traveling on what could’ve been a breakaway run toward the basket.

“It feels good,” Marquette forward Jamil Wilson said, “not having to worry.”

Miami was, in the second half, reduced to wild shots and desperate measures. It attempted 17 three-pointers after halftime, having only slightly better results than in the first half.

Marquette center Davante Gardner was a wall in the post, coming down with tough rebounds and clutch baskets that allowed the Golden Eagles to attempt only six three-pointers.

For the game, four Marquette players reached double figures in scoring. Jamil Wilson led the way with 16 points.

Maybe this would’ve been a more challenging night for Gardner and his team if Johnson, the injured Miami big man, had been in Washington with his team and Larranaga, and these are the things the Hurricanes will be wondering about as they look back.

“We definitely missed him,” Miami forward Julian Gamble said. “But at this point in the year, there are no excuses.”

Larranaga kept trying to calm his players’ nerves, kept trying to ease the intimidation that must’ve crept in.

This was what the Miami coach had done so well during the 2006 tournament, when George Mason, a No. 11 seed, slid past Connecticut to reach the Final Four. Back then, Larranaga’s team had no business moving on.

But it had somehow survived and kept surviving, defeating Michigan State, then North Carolina, then Wichita State before facing U-Conn. in Larranaga’s back yard.

On Thursday, it was Miami that seemed to forget it belonged, that it was supposed to be the more seasoned unit, swatting away the upstart that shouldn’t have made it this far.

With about a minute to play Thursday, Miami’s coach sat and watched.

The magic seemingly all spent, the tables turned, it was Larranaga’s team that was the victim this time.

“Every season is a little bit different,” Larranaga said. “Your players are different, their personalities are different. But in the end, a loss like this, you’ve still got guys in your locker room crying because they didn’t want to lose. They didn’t want to play as badly as we did.”

Kent Babb is a sports features writer for The Washington Post.
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